Arena Winter 1995: London Calling
Mark Edwards plugs into The Future Sound Of London
“I'm under your skin. You’re not going to like me,” says Gary Cobain, one half of the Future Sound Of London, by way of introduction: and he cites a German magazine article, whose headline roughly translates as “Gary Cobain is as Irritating as Fuck”, as evidence of this assertion.
Cobain is actually charming, articulate and intelligent but yes he’s also irritating as fuck. Mainly because anything he says to you will be completely contradicted, probably in the very next sentence, as he constantly changes his mind, shifts his opinion and rearranges his attitude. Cobain’s contradictory mind mirrors FSOL’s ever-changing musical moods. Once you could have labeled them as “dance”, then at the time of their last album, Lifeforms, they were clearly “ambient”, but now? Well, they’re neither of the above. Their latest album, ISDN, shows them to be making electronic music that is always imaginative and sometimes quite, quite beautiful: but God knows what genre it fits into. You should buy it. You’ll like it. But you won’t be able to describe it.
FSOL’s other half, Brian Dougans, isn’t irritating at all. For half-an-hour before Cobain arrives at their north London studios, Earthbeat, Dougans chats in a friendly and non-contradictory manner. But the moment I suggest, look, let’s not wait for Gary, let’s start the interview now, he says: “When you turn the tape on, I shut up.” And he does.
So, when Cobain arrives, he does all the talking, Dougans paces up and down behind him, silently.
The pair spend a lot of time at Earthbeat. While other bands go out on the road, FSOL refuse to do anything so blatantly rock ‘n’ roll. Instead, they play live in their studio and relay the music down ISDN phone lines either to radio stations or direct to venues. Two days before I met them, they’d “played” The Kitchen in downtown Manhattan.
“While we were playing,” Cobain confides, “I was suddenly aware of how much like rock ‘n’ roll this could become, and the contradictions that this entailed. Because we knew that people needed to be freaked out by what was happening. But the only way they could be freaked out by this signal coming from London was if they really felt that we were here, rather than just piping electronic muzak at them… which it might have been. And that meant we had to speak. So we did. By speaking, we ended up back in rock ‘n’ roll’s lap.”
This is Cobain’s big dilemma. He clearly rejects everything to do with rock ‘n’ roll totally: the very idea of some ludicrous frontman cavorting about on stage – why it’s absurd. On the other hand, he is also keenly aware that electronic music doesn’t sell in the same quantities that rock music sells. There is, therefore, some element in rock that he has to find and transport into his new music. On the other hand, he fiercely needs to feel that what he is doing is different to what’s gone before. So, to summarize: electronic music’s fucked, so it needs something from rock ‘n’ roll, except rock ‘n’ roll’s is fucked too. Oh fuck.
Cobain is adamant that what FSOL is doing is different from what’s gone before, and must be treated as such. When FSOL performed via ISDN lines for Radio 1, Cobain says, “Journalists didn’t understand it. They wanted to come down here and watch us. We said, fuck off, go home, listen to it. Because we’ve just found a new mechanism for hooking into two million people, and if you can’t find a way to write about it then it’s you and your mechanism that’s got the problem.
“I’ve always admitted that my mechanism’s got problems,” he adds. “Are you looking at your mechanism? Because your mechanism is as fucked as ours.”
Indeed it is. As the interview progresses, it becomes increasingly obvious that I need a video camera to augment my cassette machine. Only then could I record Dougans’ constantly changing facial expressions, which are his main contribution to the interview.
Cobain, however, has been working with Dougans so long that he doesn’t even have to look at him to know when a rueful smile has appeared on his face.
“Are you disagreeing with me?” he asks Dougans, without even turning round to look at him.
“Am I?” Dougans wonders.
“You were pulling a face… or something.”
“Mmm. You were disagreeing with me.”
And it’s back to the monologue.
Cobain and Dougans are famous for disagreeing with each other. Prolonged argument is their basic modus operandi. This is something to do with their inability ever to be satisfied with anything – “Very quickly, we react to whatever we’ve done,” explains Cobain, “and we begin to hate it, you know, so we have to move on” – and partly to do with the duo’s desire to work on two projects at one time in the minimal space of their studio. After the interview, Cobain wwill want to listen to some samples; for Dougans, who is increasingly getting into video rather than music, this is a problem.
Branching out into areas beyond mmaking records is one of FSOL’s two strategies for dealing with their belief that “music just isn’t good enough anymore”.
So, as well as the “ISDN” album – which is, as you’ve guessed, a sort of “live” album, taken from one of their radio broadcasts –the pair have exhibited their computer-generated art, are working up three film scripts, a TV series and a radio play, and have just written the soundtrack to a film, Weird Shit Happens, to be broadcast by the BBC (under the safer title WSH) in December.
The second strategy is to isolate that mysterious element in rock ‘n’ roll – beyond the music itself – that moves audiences and recreate it in the hi-tech modern world using virtual reality.
Or just maybe there’s a much simpler third strategy: “I just want to be moved. I just want to be zapped by music,” Cobain says. “And my heart never lies. When I’ve been zapped, I know it.”
Reluctantly, under some pressure, Cobain admits that the last time a piece of music zapped him, it was The Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows”. “I heard it on the radio. I taped it. I played it 15 times. I tried on different clothes, became a bass player and a drummer and a lead singer jumping around with the mic, which is amazing. I haven’t done that for years. Since I was a kid. And the really weird thing was it sounded so modern.”
Dougans agrees: “When Gary played it, I was trying to argue that it was a remix, that it was a modern recording. But, no way. It was the original.”
Clearly there’s a part that will forever be rock ‘n’ roll. He just tries very hard to keep it hidden. This love-hate relationship dates back to the days when his father “forced” the arts-loving Cobain to study electronics at college. “My Dad had a vision that everything was going to become electronic,” Cobain says, “and that even if I wanted to be an artist, I had to get involved with electronics.” Cobain’s father was pretty much on the money, but Cobain still remembers people taking the piss out of him because he was the only one in various college bands who was studying sciences. “But years later those same people are desperately trying to channel their meagre art through the electronic thing.
“It’s funny. I’ve been really empowered by studying electronics,” he continues. “And, you know, it was lucky; but it was quite an ill-fitting thing. Maybe that’s kind of part of what FSOL is about, the kind of struggle with where we find ourselves – that never really being happy with anything.”
“Yes,” agrees Cobain. But just as we seem to be getting somewhere, he throws in a disclaimer to the effect that actually he just “enjoys playing with the imagery of being unhappy” And then he decides that he doesn’t enjoy playing with it anymore. So, he’s even unhappy with the imagery of being unhappy?
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